How to Know When You're Enabling Addiction

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Many times when family and friends try to "help" people with alcohol use disorders, they are actually making it easier for them to continue in the progression of the disease. This baffling phenomenon is called enabling, which takes many forms, all of which have the same effect—allowing the individual to avoid the consequences of their actions.

Enabling allows someone with an alcohol problem to continue their destructive behavior, secure in the knowledge that no matter how many mistakes they make, somebody will always be there to rescue them.

What Is Enabling?

What is the difference between helping and enabling? Helping is doing something for someone that they are not capable of doing themselves.

Enabling is doing things for someone that they could and should be doing themselves.

Put simply, enabling creates an atmosphere in which the individual can comfortably continue their unacceptable behavior. Learning how to recognize the signs of enabling can help loved ones curb this tendency and encourages them to deal with the problem rather than avoiding it.

Enabling is often used in the context of alcohol or drug use. However, it can apply to any type of behavior within a relationship that supports and maintains a harmful behavior pattern. While the term is often used in a negative or even judgmental way, people who engage in enabling are not always aware of the effect that their actions have.

Signs of Enabling

In order to overcome enabling, the first step is to learn how to recognize it. Some signs that you might be engaging in enabling include:

  • Avoiding the problem: Avoidance is a common way to cope with a problem. For example, instead of confronting the person about their behavior, you might simply look for ways to avoid dealing with it. The problem is that while avoidance might be a short-term, temporary solution, it can make the problem worse in the long run.
  • Denying that there is a problem: It can be difficult to admit that your loved one has a problem. This can be especially true if the other person denies that they have an addiction. While you might know that there is an issue, it is sometimes easier to let yourself believe their denials or convince yourself that the problem really isn't that bad.
  • Feeling resentful: Even though you keep finding ways to protect your loved one from the consequences of their alcohol or substance use, your resentment for having to do things may continue to build. 
  • Ignoring or tolerating the individual's problematic behavior: You might try to ignore the signs of your loved one's behaviors. For example, you might find evidence that they have been drinking or using drugs in your home but ignore it and avoid confronting them about it.
  • Making excuses or covering for them so that they don't have to face the consequences: For example, you might call their employer and say that they are sick when they are really too hungover to go to work.
  • Providing financial assistance that maintains the problematic behavior: You might pay their bills that they forgot to pay or even give them cash that they then use to buy alcohol or drugs.
  • Sacrificing or neglecting your own needs to care for the other person: This might involve experiencing financial hardships in order to keep providing for the other person financially or neglecting your own health in order to care for the other person physically.
  • Taking over responsibilities for the other person: When the other person can't fulfill their daily duties, you might take over in order to cover for them. This might involve doing household tasks such as cleaning, laundry, or child care.

While enabling can sometimes be apparent, it can also take more subtle forms. Giving a person gifts that help them maintain their problem behaviors, for example, can also be a form of enabling.

How to Stop Enabling

If you recognize some of the signs of enabling in your relationship, there are steps that you can take to address the issue. Finding ways to empower your loved one instead of enabling them can help them work toward recovering from their addiction. And confronting your own enabling behaviors can improve your own mental and emotional well-being.

Explain the Problem

If you've been avoiding or denying the person's problem behavior, the first step is to make it clear that you know about it. Be compassionate and make it clear that while you don't support the behavior, you are willing to support and help them in getting help and making a change.

Create Boundaries

Establishing and then maintaining clear boundaries is essential. Let them know what those boundaries are and then follow through when those limits are violated. For example, tell them that they cannot come to your home or be around you when they are drinking. 

Don't Provide Financial Assistance

Giving the other person money allows them to continue engaging in destructive behavior. By not financially supporting the addiction, the other person will have to find ways to become more self-reliant.

Let Them Face the Consequences

As long as someone with an alcohol use disorder or other issue has their enabling devices in place, it is easy for them to continue to deny the problem.

Only when they are forced to face the consequences of their own actions will it finally begin to sink in how serious the problem has become.

For the loved ones of people with an alcohol or substance use disorder, sometimes this isn't easy. The consequences of the individual's behavior can affect the entire family, so it is important to find a way to balance these hard choices with the reality of what is safe and acceptable for the rest of the family.

Make Tough Choices

Confronting the behavior sometimes means making tough choices. For families, this might mean taking children to a friend's or relative's house, or even a shelter, and letting the individual come home alone to an empty house.

This is an option that protects the family and leaves the individual to deal with their problem. Those kinds of choices are difficult. They require "detachment with love."

Making hard choices involves avoiding enabling while still being supportive of your loved one. Research suggests that people who have substance use disorders often have fewer social supports, which can undermine their recovery.

Having supportive relationships with caring family members, partners, and friends has been shown to help people maintain their sobriety, so it is important to show that you care and support your loved one.

Getting Help

In addition to ending enabling behaviors, it is also important to encourage your loved one to get treatment. Rather than enabling their addiction, look for ways that you can offer assistance, support, and empowerment. For example, you might help them access treatment and recovery resources by offering to take them to the doctor or drive them to appointments.

You might also consider going to therapy yourself. Even if your loved one won't accept help, talking to a therapist yourself can help you develop new coping skills and protect your own mental health and well-being.

You may also find that some problems can linger even after treatment. For families dealing with the process of alcohol recovery, there are many resources available to offer help and support through the difficulties. Many family members have found that joining Al-Anon Family Groups can be very beneficial.

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  2. Kala E. Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. What is enabling. Enabling behaviors and resources. Published April 6, 2016.

  3. Pettersen H, Landheim A, Skeie I, et al. How social relationships influence substance use disorder recovery: a collaborative narrative studySubst Abuse. 2019;13:1178221819833379. doi:10.1177/1178221819833379